I really never thought I’d be writing something about emojis. A few years ago I would have said, “ a what?” For a while they were the purview of teens. Then they spread; my in-laws send them in text messages, my friends in email, and I once overheard a man in coffee shops say “hashtag dog emoji” in a conversation. And now they’re in work email. A lot of work emails. Sure, email has become far more casual than letter writing, but when “sincerely” seems too formal, is a tiny unicorn the answer? Are emojis (and their cousins, the emoticon and exclamation mark) okay to use in work setting?
Recent studies suggest that what I think doesn’t really matter. You’re probably going to use them anyway. 76% of workers say they’ve used them at least once in work correspondence and 41% use them sometimes. The one we use the most? The smiley face J accounts for almost 45% of all emoji use in the world. Why? Well, a social neuroscience journal suggests that our brains react to the smiley face J in a similar way as they do to an actual smiling face. (And maybe because it’s easy to type on a computer.)
It’s not really a surprise that they’ve caught on. Email, as we know, is hard to read. The words can be clear, but the tone is more often read to reflect the reader than the writer. In general it’s been found that the absence of tone is likely to be read negatively. Unlike a face to face conversation, where we can read non-verbal cues, or a telephone conversation where we can hear tone of voice, the written word in business creates a void that we’re left to fill. Which is why so many of us use emojis.
A Scandinavian study from 2014 found that emojis in the workplace are not used to convey emotion but to add intention and help the reader interpret information. The three primary uses they discovered are: to express positive feelings, to mark jokes, or to strengthen positive statements or soften statements that could be interpreted as reprimanding. (Further studies have backed up the idea that the smiley face does lessen negative interpretations.)
So they are useful. The question isn’t can you ever use an emoji but how do you use them?
Use them minimally. This means not only to use them infrequently but also to stick to the basics. A smiley face is easy to read. The octopus emoji (my fave) is cute, but very rarely useful in the workplace.
Err on the side of caution. Be mindful of corporate culture and never use them when emailing your CEO, senior managers or clients unless the other person has established them as the norm first.
Don’t use them when addressing serious matters when they could be seen as flippant or awkward.
If you do find yourself in an awkward conversation with a co-worker who doesn’t like the emoji you sent because they’re not words, you can tell him that many socio-linguists consider emojis “discourse particles” – words that have no semantic meaning but add intention to statements. Though if you remember to do that, maybe you didn’t need the emoji in the first place 😉